Last week, a divided panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit struck down the U.S. Department of Labor’s (“DOL”) “Fiduciary Rule,” a controversial measure that redefined exemptions to Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”) provisions concerning fiduciaries. The DOL’s rule, promulgated in April 2016, consisted of a package of seven interrelated rules, and it sparked controversy by redefining how brokers and other financial professionals serve consumers. First, the Fiduciary Rule reinterpreted the ERISA term “investment advice fiduciary,” heightening the fiduciary duty for these financial professionals to a “best interest” standard for their clients with ERISA plans and individual retirement accounts (“IRAs”). This “best interest” standard marked a significant departure from the prior standard for brokers, which required them to recommend investments that were merely “suitable” for their clients. Second, the Fiduciary Rule created a “Best Interest Contract Exemption,” which allowed financial professionals to avoid prohibited transactions penalties as long as they contractually affirmed their fiduciary status. READ MORE
In what is now the third interlocutory appeal in the course of class certification proceedings spanning more than a decade, the case of Erica P. John Fund, Inc. v. Halliburton Co. will head back to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, with perhaps another trip to the Supreme Court to follow. The Fifth Circuit’s eventual decision on this latest interlocutory appeal could clarify—at least in the Fifth Circuit—just how far a defendant in a securities class-action can go in presenting indirect evidence of (a lack of) price impact to defeat class certification.
On August 4, 2015 the Securities and Exchange Commission issued interpretive guidance elaborating its view that the anti-retaliation provisions in the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act apply equally to tipsters who claim retaliation after reporting internally, as well as those who are retaliated against after reporting information to the SEC. The guidance reflects that there is a split among federal courts over whether Dodd-Frank’s whistleblower retaliation provisions apply to internal as well as external reporting, and recognizes that the only circuit court to decide the issue to date, the Fifth Circuit, has taken a contrary position to that of the Commission in Rule 21F, the regulation the SEC adopted to implement the whistleblower legislation, holding that internal reports are not protected by Dodd-Frank. Whether internal reports qualify for Dodd-Frank coverage has important implications because, among other things, Dodd Frank provides enhanced recoveries (including two times back pay) and longer time frames (six years) for bringing a retaliation claim than would be available under the anti-retaliation provisions in the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002.
On July 17, 2013, the Fifth Circuit issued the first circuit court decision interpreting Dodd-Frank’s anti-retaliation provision. In Asadi v. G.E. Energy (USA), L.L.C., the Fifth Circuit held that, to be protected under Dodd-Frank’s anti-retaliation provision, an individual must be a “whistleblower,” which is defined by the statute as an individual who has made a report to the SEC. Notably, this holding directly conflicts with the SEC’s regulations interpreting the Act, as well as five district court decisions that had all held that employees who make internal reports to company management are protected under Dodd-Frank even if they did not make reports to the SEC.
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Agreeing to take up yet another securities case, the Supreme Court granted cert on January 18 in three related appeals arising out of the alleged multi-billion dollar Ponzi scheme involving R. Allen Stanford’s Stanford International Bank. The Court’s decision in this case will likely resolve a circuit split over the scope of the preclusion provision of the Securities Litigation Uniform Standards Act (SLUSA).
Congress passed SLUSA in 1998 because plaintiffs were bringing class actions in state court to get around the tough pleading standards and other limitations imposed by the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995. SLUSA precludes state law class actions involving misrepresentations made “in connection with” the purchase or sale of a security covered under SLUSA. Lower courts have struggled with the meaning of those three words: “in connection with.” If a state court case has anything at all to do with securities, will it fail?How closely must a claim relate to the sale of covered securities before SLUSA bars state law remedies? The Supreme Court is about to weigh in on these questions.
In the Stanford ponzi scheme cases, the plaintiffs are investors who purchased CDs issued by Stanford International Bank. The investors asserted claims against third-party advisors (including law firms and an insurance broker) under Texas and Louisiana law, alleging that the investors were duped into believing the CDs were backed by safe securities. Although the CDs themselves were not securities covered by SLUSA, the third-party advisors argued that SLUSA nevertheless barred the state law claims because the alleged misrepresentations related to the SLUSA-covered securities that purportedly backed the CDs. The district court agreed, dismissing the actions. But the Fifth Circuit reversed the district court, holding that the alleged fraudulent scheme was only “tangentially related” to the trading of securities covered by SLUSA. The Fifth Circuit agreed with the Ninth Circuit that misrepresentations are not made “in connection with” sales of SLUSA-covered securities when they are only “tangentially related” to those sales. This means the Fifth and Ninth Circuits are at odds with the Second, Sixth, and Eleventh Circuits, which have all adopted broader views of SLUSA’s preclusion provision.
The third-party advisor defendants asked the Supreme Court to resolve the split, and the Supreme Court agreed, given that the circuit split threatensinconsistent outcomes in some of the biggest, mostcomplex, and multi-layered securities cases. The Court’s resolution will likely go a long way towards defining the role of state courts in adjudicating important class actions relating to securities issues.